5 Reasons Why Arsenal Are Currently a Mid-Table Team: Part 2
The idea of the current Arsenal team as a mid-table material pertains to form and productivity rather than to latent potential.
In terms of potential the chance and possibility are there for the team. For example, should Arsenal win their midweek match against Everton, they'd move to fifth position in the table, just one slot shy of the Champions League spots.
But can the team win at Everton on Wednesday? This is left to be seen.
The fact that Everton are playing at home, coupled with their current form, means that the chances for an Arsenal win are not as high as might be imagined. In fact, on current form, the probability is very slim.
This fact sheds light on the mid-table idea of the article.
In the past, many Gooners would be very confident of an Arsenal win away at Everton. Such has been the team's pedigree in the last decade. Even as recent as last season, Arsenal did a double over Everton. But even last season's Arsenal would seem to be head and shoulders over the current one.
That team, despite its obvious weaknesses, created many chances and scored many goals. The current team has scored goals too, but to say it is creating a ton of chances is to stretch reality to the point of incredulity.
Last season's midfield was cohesive whenever the primary personnel—Rosicky (Ramsey), Arteta, Song—were present. This season's midfield, since Abou Diaby's injury, has struggled in the area of fluency and ball possession.
Since Abou Diaby's injury, Arsenal's midfield has struggled. Getty Images.
This less-than-strong midfield leads naturally to an under-duress defense.
In one more sense, a mid-table team refers to the failure of form and productivity—Arsenal's ability to win its matches with enough consistency—to answer to reputation. Arsenal are supposed to be one of the top teams not only in England, but in Europe as well. But can we honestly say that this is still the case in the strict sense of the term?
I agree with the reader who, in the discussion section of the Part 1 of this article, pointed out that we can no longer realistically expect Arsenal to win matches against top sides such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid.
If someone answers by saying that "of course, we can," we'd have to point out to the person that while this is true, the key is consistency.
Can we say that the current Arsenal team has a 70 percent chance of beating any of these teams? If not, what about the reverse of the situation? Can we say that Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, etc., all have a 70 percent chance of beating Arsenal?
Most objective Gooners would say that the chances to beat the current Arsenal team are higher for the aforementioned teams than they are for Arsenal.
This reality, then, is what I infer when I qualify Arsenal as a mid-table team. In other words, Arsenal's current form is akin to that of mid-table teams, if not strictly, but nearly so, at least.
Arsenal can no longer hope to beat top sides such as Barcelona with enough consistency. Getty Images.
Reasons for Regression
In Part 1 of this article, I identified three factors as responsible for Arsenal's current state: lack of depth, loss of core players and the club's inability to retain key players.
The three factors are related, as is obvious, but to recap, let me give one example for each factor.
One thing angered fans very much after the Aston Villa draw: the fact that Arsene Wenger brought off Olivier Giroud, a striker, and brought on Francis Coquelin, a defensive midfielder, in his place.
For some, this bordered on the nonsensical, since it showed lack of ambition to pressure for a win. Even the fact that Wenger may have done so to preserve a point rather than lose all three does little to mitigate this ire.
One reader observed rather keenly that this action was in contrast to Roberto Mancini (or for that matter Alex Ferguson) who has brought on a striker like Edin Džeko in the dying minutes of matches and has seen this move yield dividends. (The introduction of Chicharito Hernandez in the case of Manchester United has yielded similar fruit.)
My response to this reader was to point out that Arsenal lack such quality players in reserve.
The question is: which of Arsenal's reserve strikers possesses Chicharito's poacher instincts or Dzeko's quality? None.
So, indeed, we may begrudge Wenger, but we have to do so within logical reasons.
I do not think that bringing on Marouane Chamakh in place of Giroud would have added anything of significance to Arsenal, and if not Chamakh, who did we have that we could have brought on?
Wenger took off Podolski and brought on Gervinho and yet fans are complaining that this isn't good enough. If it isn't, what other options are there? If you look at Gervinho's stats, even in his limited appearances for Arsenal this season, one has to say that they are sufficiently impressive and yet we complain.
And well we may, so long as our complaints are to the effect that the quality we have is not sufficient. But if the complaints are to the effect that we should discard or despise whatever quality we do have, I fail to see the rationale for such complaints.
I do not believe that complaints about some Arsenal key players are justified. Getty Images.
Loss of Players
The loss of core players in just over a season addresses a question one reader posed to me. He wanted to know what I'd do in the current circumstance if I was Wenger.
The answer is that I wouldn't do what many fans are suggesting that Wenger should do, which is switch tactics—by which they mean he should change formation—and play ones like 3-5-2 and others like it.
Arsenal's problem right now isn't necessarily tactical. It is rather the problem of key personnel. Say you reverted to a 4-4-1-1, which I believe would suit Lukas Podolski in the role of a supporting striker, doing so wouldn't, per se, solve the current midfield problem.
As it is, Arsenal are struggling to play out from midfield, and this is notwithstanding their numerical advantage in midfield. What would we have if the team were to cede this advantage?
I am not saying this couldn't be managed. What I wonder is the result, in the sense of what sort of Arsenal we would see given the kind of players we currently have.
Real tactics has to do with drilling a team, which is why Wenger's classic teams, even when they lined up as 4-4-2 were never traditional 4-4-2.
Barcelona, to take one more example, tend to line up as 4-3-3, but they never play as 4-3-3 in the traditional sense.
My point in essence is that Arsenal's problem isn't formational. I laugh when people think that the rearrangement of figures equals tactics. You can do so all you like, but if there isn't intelligent movement on the pitch, it'd be to no avail.
If tactics were merely a thing of numerals and formations, every team would be Barcelona, but the reason no one has successfully been able to copy Barcelona is because their manner of playing transcends mere numerals.
To lose players, such as Theo Walcott, whom Arsenal have developed makes no sense to me. Getty Images.
Arsenal are having problems because yet again Wenger has had to build a team on the fly. He did it last season, but it was easier because he still had a few players in place who knew his methods, players like Tomas Rosicky—when he was fit—Robin van Persie and Alex Song.
This season, he not only lost his chief striker (and the remaining world-class player in the team), he lost a key ingredient in the midfield as well in the person of Alex Song.
While Santi Cazorla has come in and has more than adequately replaced Tomas Rosicky and while Arteta has reverted to the Alex Song role at the base of the midfield and has played very well, Arsenal are yet to find true balance in the middle of the midfield, and this is the current team's major problem.
While Abou Diaby was available, the team looked rock-solid, which is because a fit Diaby is an above-average player. This is the kind of player Arsenal need in the middle.
When Song's game changed remarkably last season and when Arsenal were consistently linked with Yann M'Villa, I thought Wenger's intention was to convert Song to an offensive player, a move that would have added a great deal of quality in the middle for Arsenal.
In summary, the cohesiveness and the strength Arsenal lack in the middle and even in the final third isn't something that can be eliminated by mere shuffling of numerals, it requires practical hard work in the form of countless hours of drilling, to such an extent that each player understands his role in the team and his movement on and off the ball.
This takes time, and time isn't captured in numbers such as 4-3-3 or such like. Time is also what you lack when the season has begun. The pressure to win is too great.
In terms of strength, we should pray for the permanent recovery of Diaby. I am dead serious when I say this. Diaby is a huge player for Arsenal, which is why it is a shame that he can't get fit. Were he to become fit, the balance in the midfield that we lack would suddenly disappear.
The reader needs only look at Arsenal's performances prior to the player's injury in comparison to the performance after his injury to see this point.
What's more, a fit Diaby, coupled with Jack Wilshere's return and Rosicky's in the second half of the season, should provide Wenger with real options.
I'd like to address the problem of Arsenal's front three, but this can't be accommodated here.
If we can't keep players like Alex Song and Theo Walcott, how are we sure we'll be able to keep others like AOC in two years time? Getty Images.
I have harped on the Alex Song issue because this sale deviated from the progress I thought the club was making in terms of possessing a player the club had trained over several years, a player educated in the Arsenal way of playing, a player with three years left on his contract, such that Arsenal had no need to sell him.
If some suspect that there might have been disciplinary issues involved in this case, I'd like to understand why Wenger could take on a player as undisciplined as Robin van Persie was in his early days at Arsenal, molded him into one of the most dedicated of players and one of the most inspirational of Arsenal captains, and yet felt that he couldn't address a fleeting disciplinary issue.
I call it "fleeting" because no one had heard of Song being undisciplined prior to the time the Barcelona sale arose.
The player himself said all he wanted was a pay raise, since he was one of the poorest paid players in the squad. I wonder whether this couldn't have been handled.
I am concerned because if this can happen in the case of Song, what is to stop it from happening in the case of, say, Jack Wilshere or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a couple of years?
I feel justified in my concern because I see the same thing repeating in the case of Theo Walcott, a player in whom Arsenal have invested hugely over several years. If we can't retain these kinds of players, how are we sure that we'd be able to retain the current promising players in the squad in the next few years?
Spending a lot of money in wages and in training average players and raising them to top-notch professionals, only to let them go with minimal resistance doesn't make sense to me. But I should rest my case.
Cazorla could play the Messi-like disorganizer role at Arsenal. Getty Images.
Arsenal are currently in mid-table form because the team is beset by lack of adequate options in key areas. I call this missing pieces. This has to do with the kind of players I'd like to see at Arsenal.
First, I liked to say that from the way I have seen Cazorla play for Arsenal, he seems to me to be a Messi type of player, and this is accentuated by the manner in which he roams the midfield, which is akin to what Messi does for Barcelona.
In this light, then, and if I'm correct in my observation, we need a Xavi and an Iniesta to Cazorla's Messi.
That is, the reason why Messi is hugely successful at Barcelona is because he isn't the team's engine-house. Rather, he is the team's "disorganizer of opponents," both in movement and on the ball.
Right now Cazorla evokes such an effect in Arsenal's opponents. What would really bring out his strength even more would be to play the passing type of midfielder alongside him.
The options right now in this regard are Aaron Ramsey and the injured Tomas Rosicky. The other option, and arguably the best of the three, is Jack Wilshere.
But were we to convert Cazorla to a roaming "disorganizer" role, could we be sure that he would be as productive in terms of scoring goals such that he could carry the bulk of the team's goals?
Reverting him to this role, as the reader would suspect, means making him a significant part of the front three. That is, he'd be part striker and part midfielder (much like Messi is at Barcelona).
But more significantly it'd mean that he wouldn't be a core member of the midfield three; he'd be an addition to it.
This means that, retaining Arteta at the base of the midfield, we would need a strong ball-holder and passer in the middle, someone to play the Xavi role.
With Diaby out injured, I don't see the person. The only one who could do this is Wilshere. So, say, we have Arteta-Wilshere; who is to play the Iniesta role: Podolski?
If so, this leaves us with two more players to fit into the team. Two wide players: could it be Gervinho on the left and Walcott on the right? Refer to the diagram below.
What arises very quickly is the problem I have identified above. One sees quickly that to adopt this formation—a formation with a midfield diamond, a different organization of 4-3-3—results in playing players in different positions.
For example, it might put Giroud out of his "natural" position, and one isn't sure that he is easily adaptable as van Persie would have been in this situation.
Furthermore, would it be best to play him on the left? I think not.
It might be best to play him on the right in a deceptive striking position, much like Pep Guardiola tended to play Xavi. In this way Giroud would tend to cut in diagonally to favor his left foot.
This would entail constant scissor movement between him and Cazorla, who now is employed in the false-nine position proper.
Were this to happen, that is, were Wenger to adopt this formation, he could more easily rotate Giroud and Walcott on the deceptive striking position.
On the left, any of Gervinho, Walcott (who could cut in to favor his right foot, creating a scissors movement between himself and Cazorla), AOC and Andrey Arshavin could fit in there.
What I'd like to say here, though, is what I have already said above.
Formations (including this one) in and of themselves mean little so long as the team is not drilled to such an extent that whatever formation it plays becomes second nature to it.
Again observe that while this formation favors some players, it may not favor others.
What are the missing pieces then at Arsenal in my opinion?
I’d like to see a possessor and passer in the middle, a disorganizer at the tip of the midfield (in essence a false nine) and a canny striker with a killer instinct who may or may not play centrally.
Missing Pieces is the fourth of the factors that I believe have led to Arsenal's current mid-table form. Since this part of the article is already too long. I see that a third part is needed to address my final reason and, perhaps, issues that may arise from the discussion section.
I thank the readers for their positive response to the first part of the article. I hope that this part provides an avenue for more positive discussion.
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